Trial and Error
Dell, New York, 1967
dedication: To PG Wodehouse
The blurb on the back:
So if you knew you had a terminal disease, with only a couple of months to live - and would therefore be unlikely to have to face trial, let alone punishment - who would you choose to kill? Obviously the name of Rupert Murdoch leaps immediately to mind, with those of Tony Blair, the Pope and Robbie Williams not far behind, but you have to remember that this book's from the 1930s. So Mussolini and Hitler are in the frame. They both get mentioned (in that order, curiously enough), but are discarded as possibilities since they only exist as an expression of political currents: 'Hitlerism wouldn't collapse if Hitler were killed. In fact the Jews in Germany would probably find themselves worse off still.' (p.31) Instead our hero, Lawrence Todhunter, finds someone who's making the lives of some decent people miserable. And kills her.
His problems really start, however, when someone else gets charged with the murder. Which leaves him in the tricky position of having to prove that he really is a killer. It's a nice twist on the detective story. We know whodunnit, and we know how and why he dunnit, which only leaves the question of why is it so damn difficult to find the conclusive evidence?
This is a real thing of beauty. It was filmed in 1941 as Flight From Destiny, which I haven't seen, but which I can't believe is a patch on the book. Part of the joy of the novel is the sheer length of it - for such a simple set-up, it does go on a bit, and in so doing it explores every possible nook and cranny, every variation on the theme that can be wrung out of the situation, leaving no tail untwisted, no nose untweaked.
And it's full of great little, unexpected angles. The police are deliberately obstructive, resenting the implication that they got the wrong man, whilst the News Chronicle uses the case to make a few salient points about the Spanish Civil War (bit of a dated joke, that one, but you'll appreciate it if you're a fan of newspaper history). Even better, Todhunter's brief is a very well-connected QC named Sir Edward Prettiboy, whose wonderful name is matched only by an ability to work the Establishment, a talent at which he excels:
How can you resist a writing style that dry? It's up there with Hilaire Belloc's satirical novels. Oh, and if you have a scintilla of doubt left in your mind, check that dedication.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 3/5